Your Third Khmer Lesson: Reading and Writing

4 03 2012

Throughout training, we studied Khmer with our LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator) several hours a day, reviewed at home for an hour, and constantly practiced our language in the community when buying the ever necessary Coke or cuttlefish snack. Throughout all of this, we never learned how to read and write, short of a quick review of the alphabet. There are many good reasons for this: first and foremost the lack of time during training, followed closely by the obvious need to focus on speaking and listening. This inevitably led to some problems, however. As students adopted their own phonetics, copying other volunteers’ notes became impossible. In our five person language group, it was a rarity for us to ever write a word the same way. We heard, memorized, and recited sounds differently, leading to many of us to be completely unable to understand each other. Due to the shortfalls of only learning to speak and listen, Katie and I decided reading and writing in Khmer was the next logical step for us.

"Each room has a door and windows so that the breeze and light can come and go."

Within a couple months at site, we found a great language tutor (Bunnat), who immediately set out to explain this both enigmatic and logical writing system to us. We quickly blew through the 33 consonants and moved on to the vowels. Officially, there are 23 vowels, most of which have two sounds depending on the consonant that the vowel follows. So that brings us to more than 40 unique vowel sounds in the Khmer language. Many are pretty similar to English sounds and are easy enough to replicate; other sounds include more than one syllable or a consonant sound. For instance, there are vowel sounds like “awm,” “ohm,” and “a-ya.” All of this contributes to the simple fact that when our teacher recited the vowel sounds, I couldn’t help but think he was burping his way through the alphabet like that one “talented” 6th grader we all knew.

A lot of hard work by Bunnat (and a little by us) has gotten us to the point of reading short paragraphs. We’re starting to read a 1st grade story book, but it continues to be a slow slog. One of the contributing factors to our pokiness is that there are not spaces between words in Khmer. This makes it difficult for beginners like us to read quickly. Thankfully, Khmer is written left to right, which eliminates some of the initial awkwardness that I first experienced with Arabic.

More fun stuff about the school. Did you know it's made of bricks and roof tiles?

The great thing about learning the basics of reading and writing is that it has made us much more self sufficient Khmer studiers. We can now (drum roll please) use a dictionary all by ourselves and meticulously study signs while waiting for our bus. These simple changes have really improved the amount of words we’re learning and the rate at which we retain them. We’ve both already found it useful at work, and it’s clear our pronunciation has greatly improved now that we actually know how words are spelled.





One response

5 03 2012
Sharon Warner


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